Man and ball: No sign of champagne Cork
13:11, 12 Apr 2012
Cork and Kerry are on course for a first league final meeting in 15 years but it is later on in the championship where the Rebels owe their rivals one.....
It’s always the quiet ones. Cork have made stealthy progress through Division 1 on their way to the league knockout stages for the fourth consecutive year. Meanwhile, all the recent focus has been elsewhere. Dublin’s collapse against Mayo allied to their disciplinary problems soaked up the column ink last week. James Horan’s side were being talked up following their free-running and effervescent 12-point win in Castlebar, achieved pulling up before the final bend. Tyrone blitzed Division2, winning all seven games.
In Meath they’re wondering what now for Banty. How can a team win a Leinster title and reach the last four in the All Ireland series yet lose to Limerick, Antrim and Tipperary in the last couple of years? Where do they go from here? And without their star forward, too. Even Fermanagh and Peter Canavan have been stirring more interest than the Rebels as they enjoy a current redemption following last season’s uprisings when they were rated the worst team in Ireland.
Given, some of Cork’s league results have been less than spectacular. They were locked together in a low-scoring game with an Armagh side who finished next to last after seven games. Another slugfest in Ballbofey saw Donegal come out on top by four points before they were stung at home by their biggest rivals. There have been glimpses of form: They did romp to a swashbuckling four-goal win over Down, against whom they will contest the league semi final.
In the top three divisions just one team conceded less than them and that was the runaway Division 2 winners. In all four divisions, out of 33 sides, only Mickey Harte’s men, Clare and Fermanagh managed to match the miserly Rebel defence in conceding just a solitary goal in seven games. The meanness of their defence has been attributed by some to an overall conservative game plan. Often during the league they engaged in unnecessarily pedantic and ponderous build-up play.
The suggestions are this Cork team still have a long way to go. Last season’s injuries seriously burdened them before the All Ireland quarter final against Mayo to an extent that the defeat could have been affixed with an asterisk. The Year of the Cruciate claimed as its victims Colm O’Neill and Ciaran Sheehan while Daniel Goulding missed out with an ankle problem. Goulding, scorer of nine points in the 2010 All Ireland final, was particularly missed as Cork could only muster 1-3 from play and just one point in the entire second half.
This team is in the curious position of coming in for some criticism concerning their league form while also shouldering the expectation that this could be their year again. Typically, the bookies have Kerry favourites to come out on top of the bunch in September. Dublin’s odds may have receded a bit but they have a few heavyweights to come back into the side and split the two Munster behemoths in the betting for Sam.
Should Cork repeat the pasting they dished out to Down in February then they will be on course to meet Kerry in a league final for the first time in 15 years. The All Ireland series though, and not just the league or the provincial championship, is where the current team need to overcome Jack O’Connor’s side.
Similar to the Barcelona and Real Madrid rivalry, there is a feeling Cork will have to beat Kerry when it really matters. Pep Guardiola was irked recently when it was suggested Barcelona were somehow fortunate to reach the last five Champions League semi finals. That Guardiola even had to defend implied accusations about favourable refereeing decisions spoke as much about how a team wins trophies as it did about a certain resentment – particularly from Chelsea and Madrid – toward the Catalans. Guardiola knows it but didn’t say it: Barca have to beat Real in the final to shut up José Mourinho, their chief provocateur in recent times.
Kerry’s mere presence is enough the provoke Cork and there is plenty of ammunition to motivate a payback. In 2006, 2008 and 2009 Cork won Munster ties between the pair but Kerry seemed to move on with an insouciant collective shrug of the shoulders, knowing there would be a chance to redress the situation later in the summer. In those years the Rebels fell to the Kingdom when the safety nets were removed, once in a semi final and twice in finals. It hasn’t worked the same the other way around: Kerry twice beat Cork in 2005 and 2007 and after they recorded the same result in 2010 Down denied the Leesiders a second cut at them.
Having taken a peek at how their neighbours have redeployed a tall, strong midfielder with brilliant effect over the last six years Conor Counihan has experimented with Aidan Walsh at full-forward. That move paid off last weekend as Walsh scored the decisive goal when his side were struggling to cut through a depleted Dublin. With the trio of attackers mentioned above tentatively finding their way back from injury there should be added spice to a stuttering attack. Certainly, Cork cannot afford to lose players of that calibre when one considers that they have a tendency to go through long spells in games without scoring. As well as last year’s defeat against Mayo, and that solitary second-half point, they encountered similar struggles this year against Kerry and Donegal.
Kerry and Mayo is an intriguing fixture in light of the latter’s scintillating recent form but a repeat of the 1997 final looks the more likely prospect. The championship meeting of the two big southern rivals will also come early this year – barring Tipperary producing one of the greatest shocks of all time – but with the Munster championship looking a less significant indicator as to how the rest of the summer pans out, Croke Park is where the final judgement will be delivered.
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